NZIFF 2020 mini-reviews (A – D)


Our writers have been watching a ton of films playing as part of Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival 2020.

 

This year’s festival, streaming online (and playing in select cinemas), from 24 July to 3 August features plenty of gems. Our team of keen viewers has gotten an early look at much of the programming, and we’re here to help make your picks for 2020. We’ve alphabetised our reviews here for your convenience.

All 2020 mini-reviews:
Latest reviews | A – D | E – J | K – M | N – R | S – Z

See also:
* All our Q&As with this year’s filmmakers
* Steve Newall’s early picks from the programme
* Liam Maguren’s early picks from the programme

1982

The cinematic beauty of the setting of this film, a leafy, elegant private elementary school in Beirut on a clear summer morning in 1982, juxtaposes the uneasy tension you feel as the day progresses, interrupted now and then with increasingly closer sonic booms. Evocative, natural performances from the kids are entwined with the jaw tightening dread affecting the adults as they struggle to maintain a facade of control. Based on the director’s childhood recollections, the perspective is both warmly nostalgic and chilling.
SARAH VOON

Animation NOW!

From the beautiful to the mind-boggling, the arty to the awesome, curator Malcolm Turner introduces sixteen shorts selected from across the globe. From the hand-drawn and computer-animated, to the abstract, surreal, funny, touching and moving. Tops for me were Polish animator Piotr Milczarek’s Rain, a delightfully rendered superhero fable, and the hypnotically minimalist Kids by superlative Swiss artist Michael Frei. Wonderful stuff.
ADAM FRESCO

Another year, another slick mix of cool / mind-altering / pretty bloody weird animated stuff. Personal faves include frame-by-frame painted works, some film about a dude with a train for a face, and the spirit-shredding final film. Curator Malcolm Turner makes great use of the VOD platform too, personally and eloquently introducing each film before they play to help you/me make sense of it all.
LIAM MAGUREN

Before Everest

Not sure this doco fully answers its central question, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (the past is often locked forever) but it does leave a gap that isn’t completely acknowledged. Ends up being more fascinating as an examination of ‘history’ being the endless grey area between ‘truth’ and ‘stories’, a notion fuelled by the filmmakers’ constant self-awareness to avoid sensationalising what happened between Sir Ed and their father.
LIAM MAGUREN

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

If things got a bit screwy, you became a rampant alcoholic and ended up spending twenty-plus hours a day in grubby Las Vegas dive bar Roaring 20’s, smoking ciggies, doing shots and dropping acid with a societally forsaken carnival of like-minded human flotsam… this slice-of-life-from-a-maggoty-cake doco would be about you. Wonkily capturing the bar’s final ever scummy, tender and heartachey interactions, drunken soliloquies, and tragi-comedy, the fate of its patrons uncertain. Jokes stalwart Michael: If you would mercy kill me tonight, that would be great.
SARAH VOON

Loved the boozy, slurred 4am barfly poetry of this bleary-eyed toast to the disillusioned and the marginalised. A hazy, elegiac, moving microcosm of the American Now, haunted by the ghosts of Altman and ‘70s-era Huston.
AARON YAP

The less you know about the actual conceit of this film in advance, the better. A barfly-on-the-wall flick like no other, depicting the final day’n’night of a 24-hour Las Vegas dive bar. You’ll laugh, you’ll leer, you’ll cry, you’ll slow dance with someone you normally wouldn’t, then set off fireworks in the parking lot. If Jarmusch made a reality show, it might just look like this…
MATTHEW CRAWLEY

Charter

Custody battles unfortunately are not always about what’s best for the kids and all too often about control and manipulation between the parents. This taut Swedish drama tiptoes that fraying tightrope so well you’re never 100% certain whose side is the safest. Intuitive, reserved performances from the children who are preternaturally aware of their parents’ games, and consequently forced to live in an exhausting state of damage assessment. The contrasting cinematic beauty of the Nordic snowscapes with the lightly populated holiday resorts in Tenerife, provides a dramatic foil for the kid’s mum, Alice’s (the excellent Ane Dahl Torp) impulsive decisions—albeit born of love—to play out.
SARAH VOON

Coded Bias

Oh great, now there’s all this to worry about. Does a great job patiently laying out how racial inequality can be baked into software just as much as other areas of life, and that’s just part of the ethical quagmire surrounding facial recognition. Well worth your time as a primer on this and other privacy issues—ones that we’re all already mired in whether we know it or not.
TONY STAMP

Chillingly timed as tech companies try to pause police use of facial recognition in the US during Black Lives Matter protests. A clear outline of the technology, its problems with correctly identifying black faces, and the associated risks of its unregulated use, but may find itself quickly overtaken by real-life events. Equal parts chilling and banal when we see it deployed by British cops and the problems that ensue, but a small tsk tsk for not correctly attributing the phrase “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed” to author William Gibson.
STEVE NEWALL

Corpus Christi

After a looooong wait (this played Venice and Toronto in 2019 and was a nominee for Best International Feature at February’s Oscars), there’s plenty to enjoy in this tale of a paroled Polish juvie masquerading as a priest. Throw in a small-town mystery/scandal alongside the con/redemption storyline, mint performances, a firm grasp on tone ranging from sombre to gak-fueled and this comes together as a classic NZIFF audience pleaser. If you want to see more from director Jan Komasa, you only need to wait until July 29 when The Hater arrives on Netflix.
STEVE NEWALL

So bloody good. A punchy priest parable that joins the choir of First Reformed and Calvary, surgically exposing the nature of redemption and forgiveness lying within the bloody guts of human grief and hatred—all entombed inside an uncaring legal system. The ending made my soul skip a beat.
LIAM MAGUREN

“Remember, it’s only a parable” says the priest in the last act of director Jan Komasa’s engrossing tale of Daniel, a young man, fresh from juvenile detention centre, who takes on the guise of a priest in provincial Poland. Blessed with exceptional acting, led by a blistering performance by Bartosz Bielenia as the convict who’s either a con-artist or a convert, this crisply lensed, sparingly scripted, rivetingly portrayed morality tale is a stark, simply-told rumination on the complex nature of faith, forgiveness and human frailty.
ADAM FRESCO

The County

Grímur Hákonarson follows Rams with another morality tale set in the bleak but beautiful Icelandic landscape. A tale of hard-working farmers Inga, (a superb Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir), and her husband Reynir, (a suitably cynical Hinrik Ólafsson). In their battle against the injustices foisted on them by their local farming co-operative, it is Inga who takes on the heroic mantle, battling tradition with modern social media and online shopping. Powerful, engrossing, and often darkly humorous, it’s worth seeing for those Icelandic landscapes, and Egilsdóttir’s electric performance alone.
ADAM FRESCO

You could probably film someone eating a packet of chips in the sweeping Icelandic farmscapes providing the stunning backdrops in writer/director Grímur Hákonarson’s (Rams) latest film The County, and it would look cinematic. This poignant slow-burning drama uncovers corruption and tension in a small rural community under the thumb of an oppressive Co-op. Farmer and pragmatist, Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) helms the charge against the villains, turning in such an authentic, accomplished performance, that I would be surprised if she couldn’t actually run a dairy farm by herself. Excellent!
SARAH VOON

Dark City Beneath the Beat

A great movie to listen to as well as watch, this is a bit like TT The Artist made an album then wrapped it around a documentary on Baltimore. Admirable in the way it shows the influence things like class, police brutality and sexual orientation have had on the Baltimore club scene, it’s just as much an excuse to crank some subs and get some synchronised dances going.
TONY STAMP

Bit of a disappointment this one, especially after it grabbed my attention and was included in my programme picks. Perhaps forewarned is forearmed—this isn’t so much a documentary on the Baltimore Club sound, or the city’s music scene itself, as it is a project using these as a backdrop to showcase artist/producer/filmmaker/label boss TT the Artist, whose Club Queen Records provides most of the music. Yes, there are some Bmore insights, especially in the grassroots dance community, but every time the reality gets interesting, this pivots away to yet another music video-style interlude—leaving too much unexplored.
STEVE NEWALL

Dinner in America

Heathers meets Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but with less punch and charm. To be honest I found Dinner in America a fairly laboured rendition of the old “Teenage Anarchy in the USA” story, redeemed slightly by its cartoon garishness in both costuming and set pieces. One of the lead characters might be a pyromaniac, but I don’t think this film is going to set much on fire.
RACHEL ASHBY

Um, apart from the excellent opening scene, I found this movie just… So. Bad. A barrage of try-hard provocation by way of obnoxiously overplayed characters and rank, unfunny throwback insults, it veered and shouted its way between bad old ‘80s John Hughes and ‘90s Geeks vs Jocks flicks. It could have been less offensive and more entertaining if someone had smacked Writer/Director/Editor Adam Rehmeier on the hand and told him “No!” at some point, but with the Producer lineup being pretty much a bunch of party Dads, I guess that didn’t happen.
SARAH VOON

A cute love story amidst a bunch of clichés about quirky outsiders defeating bullies by discovering sex, dope and unleashing their inner Sid & Nancy, this teen-rebellion rom-com feels about as punk as Justin Bieber on a pogo-stick. It wants to be Heathers meets Napoleon Dynamite in Ghost World, but a pretty much all-white cast, offhand homophobic slurs, and some innate sexism leave a bad aftertaste. Despite some amusing scenes and a talented cast putting on their maximum kook, it comes off as a wannabe US punk 1980s throwback that’s nowhere near as satirical, zany, off-the-wall, or shocking as it thinks it is.
ADAM FRESCO

Drama Girl

So this experimental doco-esque film capturing a director making a film about a girl playing herself(!) is perhaps about the process of excavating authenticity from a performance. Observing how much director Vincent Boy Kars intuits he can ask and what performer Leyla de Muynck chooses to release, creates some uncomfortable moments—although one can applaud Leyla’s bravery for going there. At times it felt a little indulgent in its subject’s choices, however, the bright colour palette and creative staging make it a visually stimulating watch.
SARAH VOON

Driveways

Goddamn, this film is lovely. It’s both quietly hilarious and deeply moving; it captures the various reservations and anxieties of the three central characters with such nuance and integrity that it feels like small truths about the world are constantly being revealed. Watch it with your Grandma—you’ll probably need some tissues.
RACHEL ASHBY

Wonderfully acted, especially from the film’s youngest actor, whose sensitive performance threw me right back to my awkward nine-year-old self. The whole thing’s so breezy, I’ll probably struggle to remember most of it in 2022. However, its snapshot running time and dramatic subtleties stay achingly true to the film’s depiction of fleeting, yet important, childhood friendships.
LIAM MAGUREN

All 2020 mini-reviews:
Latest reviews | A – D | E – J | K – M | N – R | S – Z